An inspired, double substitution from City chief Paul Lambert almost threw a large spanner into Manchester City’s title works before the deadly duo of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero went back to work and sealed a thumping 6-1 win.
The two had already struck one apiece before the interval, before the introduction of Wes Hoolahan and Andrew Surman threatened to rock the visitors boat as Surman’s fifth goal of the season hauled Norwich within sight of their visitors.
But two goals in the space of a minute followed by Tevez’s third off a Ryan Bennett mistake ensured that the blue half of Manchester would continue to heap the pressure on the red half as United prepared to play host to Aston Villa tomorrow.
A sixth in injury time from Adam Johnson after the visitors had twice rattled the woodwork before the end completed the scoring as the Canaries ran straight into a Sky Blue machine at its clinical and mental best.
“For 70-odd minutes, I thought we were right in the game,” said Lambert afterwards, with the final 20 minutes proving to be Norwich’s undoing.
“Which we were – at 2-1 the lads were right in it and were in the ascendancy, but three goals in seven minutes was poor from our point of view,” he added. “And the first two goals were absolute rockets.”
With the Canaries deservedly unchanged from the side that dismissed Spurs on Easter Monday, the home side threatened as early as the fifth minute to carry on where they left off at White Hart Lane as Anthony Pilkington raced half the length of the pitch only to sweep his final effort wide of both far post and the fast-arriving Jonny Howson.
The visitors, by contrast, were slower to hit their stride as Pilkington continued to test and tease Pablo Zabaleta. Likewise Tevez’s afternoon didn’t initially start well with a theatrical, ninth minute dive in front of Bennett; his reward was a yellow card from an unimpressed Chris Foy.
Lambert was determined to reward his Spurs heroes with another bite of the cherry.
“I thought the team that played against Spurs deserved the right to go again,” said the City chief. “I thought they looked a little bit tired towards the end of the first-half, so we changed it a little bit and Andrew [Surman] and Wes [Hoolahan] came on and did really fine.
“I’ve just said to the lads that they have to just dust themselves down and get ready to go again. For 70 minutes they were right in the game. And against lads that can finish like that, you’ve just got to take your medicine.”
Indeed Norwich’s early pressure almost told in the 14th minute as Grant Holt rose unchallenged six-yards out to head goalward only for Joleon Lescott to clear off the line as Joe Hart’s appeal that he was being impeded by Aaron Wilbraham was waved away.
Any sense of injustice that might have been building in the visitors was, however, swiftly forgotten in the 18th minute as Tevez smashed the title hopefuls ahead.
Elliott Ward might have lost possession to David Silva, but there still appeared little immediate danger as the ball was swiftly moved out to the Argentinian away on the right. That was until he unleashed a vicious, swerving drive that left John Ruddy wholly beaten and bemused.
It was a classic of the breed; one, small mistake and seconds later the ball is nestled in the back of the net.
Tevez turned provider nine minutes later with a superb, back-heeled return into the path of strike partner Aguero who, from some 20-yards out, instinctively drove the visitors’ second high into the top right corner of Ruddy’s goal. The contest was fast slipping out of Norwich’s grasp as ‘Blue Moon’ began to echo around Carrow Road as class – aka money – started to tell.
In fairness, Norwich didn’t slip quietly beneath the waves. The home side forced a smart save out of Hart in the 35th minute as Holt swung a snap shot around Vincent Kompany off a Russell Martin cross, but as the half-time whistle blew so the Canaries knew a mountain would await after the interval.
Two changes was Lambert’s immediate response as Surman replaced Pilkington and Hoolahan offered guile for Bradley Johnson’s grit.
It took six minutes to yield results. Hoolahan teed up Adam Drury for a near-post cross which Hart only half-punched off Wilbraham’s head. It fell to a lurking Surman who with his second touch neatly tucked the ball into the bottom corner.
It asked big questions of the title hopefuls to which Ruddy twice had the answer as he denied first Aguero and then Zabaleta as the game opened up at either end with Hoolahan, in particular, relishing his opportunity. The Dubliner was the one, non-English born player wearing a Canary shirt. A fact not lost on the home faithful as the visiting League of Nations looked to get hold of the contest again.
That they did in the 73rd minute. Substitute Yaya Toure drilled a low shot to Ruddy’s right. The ball pinged up invitingly off the keeper’s right glove for Tevez to nod gently home. Seconds later – literally – and Aguero was weaving his way into the Norwich box and curling a fabulous finish around a helpless Ruddy for the fourth.
Tevez’s hat-trick arrived in the 80th minute as Bennett sold his keeper horribly short with an under-hit back pass and the Argentinian made light work of first rounding Ruddy and then rolling the ball home.
And that really was that. Or was until substitute Adam Johnson side-footed a simple sixth home in injury time.
At least for the home faithful, consolation wasn’t hard to find. For though the two teams might be leagues apart in terms of what money can buy, they will be both in the same league next season. Events on Easter Monday made certain of that.